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Old dogs and new tricks: How can Aaron Rodgers learn to throw over the middle?

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Is it personnel, system, or himself keeping Rodgers from throwing over the middle?

Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is an idiom that points out that as we age we become more stuck in our ways. While there is some scientific backing of this adage, it’s not actually true. For example, if any of you happen to have parents or happen to yourself be in Generation X or a Boomer, basically all of the interactions happening online are just that: an old dog learning a new trick.

So what do half-true idioms have to do with football? The Green Bay Packers starting quarterback is almost certainly an old dog. Said old dog is used to playing a particular style of football, within a particular set of parameters. That style of football and set of parameters was altered a bit in 2019, as a new offensive system was implemented. While there are some similarities between old and new, they are not the same offense. Mike McCarthy ran a version of the West Coast, that became more of a “Spread Coast.” Matt LaFleur comes from the Shanahan tree, which is NOT the West Coast.

While some things did change in 2019, such as a decreased use of 11 personnel, a greater focus on play-action passing, and an overall better “marriage” between the run and pass game, one thing that certainly didn’t change was the middle-of-the-field usage. As outlined in my prior post in this series, Rodgers was hilariously behind every other qualified quarterback in the NFL in throws to the short or intermediate middle (SIM throws) in 2019. If you haven’t read that article yet, I highly recommend doing so before continuing.

When it comes to throw SIM passes, no one did it less often than Aaron Rodgers. What is incredibly interesting as a counter is that only two players threw more SIM passes than Kyle Shanahan’s quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. While Rodgers only threw 24.6% of his passes to SIM, Jimmy G was at 46.2%. There has been plenty of virtual ink spilled both last off-season and this off-season about how Matt LaFleur’s offense is going to look closer to Kyle Shanahan’s than a Sean McVay scheme. We began to see that with personnel usage in 2019, and it’s likely to continue in 2020 as Green Bay continues to get “big” with personnel. What remains to be seen is if LaFleur can teach this old dog to throw over the middle of the field.

The first counterpoint to Rodgers trending into Jimmy G territory of SIM throws even being a good idea is the difference in personnel. San Francisco has George Kittle. George Kittle is awesome. Green Bay has Jace Sternberger, who might be good, though we don’t know yet. They also have Marcedes Lewis, who is essentially an extra offensive lineman with hands at this point. Robert Tonyan exists. Jimmy G also has Deebo Samuel, who fits the role of gadgety slot receiver pretty well. I don’t really allow this point as Green Bay has Davante Adams who can be used in that role, as well as someone like Allen Lazard, who was actually quite good last year when targeted.

I don’t think there’s a perfect way to try and quantify tight-end productivity influencing SIM throws because each of the variables influence the others, but here is a list of of the top-10 quarterbacks by SIM volume, the name of their respective number one tight end, and that tight end’s DVOA. Then is the same table for the bottom-10 quarterbacks.

Top 10 SIM QB and TEs

QB TE TE DVOA
QB TE TE DVOA
M. Ryan A.Hooper 12.5%
D. Carr D. Waller 22.0%
J. Garoppolo G. Kittle 18.9%
R. Fitzpatrick M. Gesicki -16.3%
L. Jackson M. Andrews 12.1%
P. Rivers H. Henry 19.0%
R. Tannehill J. Smith 25.6%
D. Brees J. Cook 37.7%
J. Flacco N. Fant -5.9%
D. Watson D. Fells 15.6%

Bottom 10 SIM QB and TEs

QB TE TE DVOA
QB TE TE DVOA
G. Minshew J. O'Shaughnessy 19.3%
C. Wentz Z. Ertz -4.3%
P. Mahomes T. Kelce 14.8%
K. Cousins K. Rudolph 26.9%
K. Murray C. Clay 45.3%
J. Allen D. Knox -14.0%
S. Darnold R. Griffin 8.4%
M. Stafford T. Hockenson -18.1%
R. Wilson W. Dissly 36.0%
A. Rodgers J. Graham 2.1%

Tight-end efficiency doesn’t necessarily appear to be a major factor around the league in terms of influencing SIM volume, but each situation is going to have different circumstances.

When it comes to Green Bay’s situation in particular, as I mentioned earlier, while Jimmy Graham was not “good,” he was pretty “good” in comparison to everything else Green Bay had going in the receiving corps last year. Using a qualifier of at least 40 targets, this is how Green Bay’s receiving group performed by DVOA, to account for per-play efficiency, and DYAR to account for volume. The rank at their respective position is included to provide context for those who are less familiar with the context of these stats:

NOTE: There were 81 qualifiers for DVOA and DYAR at WR last season, 48 at TE, and 50 at RB.

Packers 2019 Receiving Corps DVOA and DYAR

Player DVOA DYAR
Player DVOA DYAR
D. Adams 0.6% (43) 139 (31)
A. Jones -5.1% (29) 35 (24)
J. Graham 2.1% (19) 38 (18)
M. Valdes-Scantling -15.5% (72) -13 (71)
G. Allison -35.8% (80) -98 (79)
A. Lazard 14.6% (18) 118 (36)
J. Williams 27.4% (8) 103 (9)
Per Football Outsiders, Minimum 40 targets

This was a truly putrid performance from a receiving corps in 2019, but especially at the wide receiver position. 111 targets went to players who had a DVOA of worse than -15%. Jimmy Graham, despite being disappointing, was actually one of the more efficient targets for Rodgers last year.

Strictly from this analysis, it would be tough to say that Rodgers’ hesitance to throw the middle of the field is related to the tight end position, so a good Jace Sternberger alone probably does not solve this issue. What it will take is a real change or evolution from Rodgers, who has been reluctant to fix many a bad habit he has created since his 2014 MVP season. If he wants to enjoy the strong late-career seasons that Drew Brees and Tom Brady have, he’s going to have to start making life easier on himself, and Matt LaFleur will have to help by continuing to push the offense away from Mike McCarthy and into Kyle Shanahan.